Biz gives way to pleasure at Oldenburg

Fest Traveler: Oldenburg

The Oldenburg Film Festival turns 18 this year, and coincidentally some of the nearly 70 films being shown deal with coming-of-age themes.

The festival runs from Sept. 14-18 in the Lower Saxony town of about 160,000. Known for several years as the German Sundance, the screenings are a mix of independent films with a few larger films thrown in, says Oldenburg fest director Torsten Neumann. The festival is not planned around a theme, but they end up emerging out of the selected films, he says. And that includes those few coming-of-age dramas, such as the Swedish “Marianne” and the Australian “Lou.”

Neumann notes that the atmosphere is different at Oldenburg than at the bigger festivals, such as Cannes or Berlin. Compared to those venues, Oldenburg doesn’t get the international viewers “who comes to scout out films.” Festival moviegoers care more about film as an art, rather than a commercial entity, and are concerned more with discovering really good movies than with the distribution rights or other business aspects of the industry, Neumann says.

Director Buddy Giovinazzo (“Life Is Hot in Cracktown”) agrees.

“A lot of Germans, but also a lot of Americans, call it the German Sundance. It’s because they play a lot of indie films, not so much studio films,” and that’s a big advantage for the independent moviemakers, says the Berlin-based New York native. “If you take an indie film to Berlin, you get lost with all the big studio releases. An indie film doesn’t have a shot there. Here you get noticed.”

Giovinazzo was one of seven filmmakers given $26,000 to make a horror movie. The anthology, known as “The Theatre Bizarre,” placed no restrictions on the filmmakers, which Giovinazzo says is quite rare. Among the other directors are Richard Stanley, Tom Savini and Douglas Buck.

Oldenburg is also paying tribute to Ted Kotcheff with this year’s retrospective, which will showcase six of the Canadian helmer’s pics, including the 1965 drama “Life at the Top,” starring Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons.

Apart from the movies, German actor-photographer-filmmaker Roger Fritz will receive a special honor this year for his work. His first film, “Verstummte stimmen,” from 1962, won Germany’s national film award (Bundesfilmpreis).

Matthew Modine, whose “Jesus Was a Commie” is having its German preem at the festival, heads up the jury. This year’s films were selected from a record 900-plus entries. A major highlight will be the German preem of “The Way,” with Emilio Estevez, Deborah Kara Unger and Martin Sheen. Koch Media will begin distributing the film in Germany in the spring.

For all the praise the festival seems to receive from smaller filmmakers and movie buffs, it has had a tough time with some local politicians. Last year, city authorities cut their support by more than 50% from the usual €100,000 ($145,000) it had been receiving. This year they increased support some to $111,530.

Giovinazzo says the festival has fallen victim to petty small-town politics. Oldenburg’s mayor, Gerd Schwandner, is an ardent filmgoer and strong supporter of the festival, but his rivals in the city government are less than enamored with the press the mayor gets during festival time.

“My feeling is the other politicians are jealous,” Giovinazzo claims, hence the dispute over the festival’s finances. Neumann hopes the city government can once again realize how important the Oldenburg Film Festival is to the town’s prestige and image and that it restores full funding soon.